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The story of the loan that helped build Disneyland

Over its 156-year history, Commerce Bank has had a lot of customers. Those customers have achieved quite a bit as a result of their interactions with us. Did you know, for example, that a life insurance loan provided by Commerce played a role in helping Walt Disney achieve his vision for creating Disneyland?

If you didn’t, that’s okay – because until recently, nobody currently working at Commerce did either.

The connection between Commerce and Disney – and one of the world’s most beloved theme parks – came to light earlier this year, when Robin Trafton received an unusual message. Trafton is the bank’s art curator and she manages the Commerce archives.

The message was from a collector of Disney memorabilia who owned a single-page document from the Commerce Trust Company showing that Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, took out a $60,000 loan against his life insurance policy in 1954. The collector was putting the loan document up for auction soon and wanted to let Commerce know about it.

As Trafton soon learned, the document has a significance that goes well beyond that of a normal collector’s item. In the early 1950s, when Disney decided he wanted to build a theme park that parents and children could enjoy together, he was struggling to find financing for it. At the time, there was nothing quite like Disney’s idea in existence; many considered it a risky venture.

According to the auction house where the document was listed, the loan was part of Disney’s efforts to fund the development of his vision. As the auction catalog stated,

“Without Walt’s loan and this signed agreement, it is quite possible that Disneyland would never have become a reality. Such was Walt’s conviction that Disneyland would be a success, that he put his life on the line, including the financial safety net of both his wife and children.”

After doing some internal research, Trafton realized that none of Commerce’s current team members was aware that Walt Disney had once been a customer. “I also found myself wondering why Walt Disney elected to take out the loan with a Kansas City-based bank,” she says. She learned that Disney spent much of his youth in Kansas City, but by the time of the loan, he had been living in California for more than 30 years.

Jim Linn, a former executive vice president and chief operating officer for Commerce, provided some answers. Linn spent 42 years with the bank before retiring in 1990, and he worked as an assistant cashier in the early 1950s, around the time of the Disney loan.

“Life insurance was one of the biggest parts of Commerce’s loan portfolio back then,” Linn explains. “People could borrow against their life insurance policies with us for around a 2% rate, whereas the life insurance companies were offering 6%. Our rate was so good that people from around the country came to us for those loans.”

One of them, he said, was a movie star named Franchot Tone. “Most people these days don’t know him, but he was a big name at the time,” Linn notes. (And he’s right; Tone appeared in more than 70 films, was nominated for an Academy Award for Mutiny on the Bounty, and was briefly married to Joan Crawford.) “I wasn’t aware of the loan we did for Walt Disney, but considering we did one for Franchot Tone, the Disney loan wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

Obviously, all of Disney’s risks paid off. Disneyland was an immediate hit when it opened in 1955, and by the end of its first year of operations, the park had already attracted 3.6 million guests. Since then, it has hosted more than 700 million guests and is still going strong.

“Commerce Bank has helped a lot of people build innovative and successful companies over the years,” says Trafton. “It’s nice to know we had a small role to play in helping Walt Disney create ‘the happiest place on earth,’ too.”